Zama ★★★★

The cinema of endless possibilities:

"If Lucrecia Martel’s latest film were to be compared to anything else — besides the director’s own work, which Zama’s skewering of privilege and interrogation of repressed national trauma is very much in line with — Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja might be the most appropriate candidate, at least on a thematic level. The two films essentially follow colonialists being conquered by the South America territories that they’ve colonized, and where their principled leads mentally deteriorate over time from the inaccessibility of foreign terrain and the grinding persistence of bureaucracy. Like Viggo Mortensen’s Captain Dinesen in Jauja, Daniel Giménez Cacho’s Don Diego de Zama is stuck in an in-between state of authority and helplessness, where his requests to leave Paraguay for a position in Argentina (where his family is) are consistently denied in a series of Kafkaesque situations that only build in ridiculousness. The biggest set-back comes in the form of Vicuña Porto, wanted by the Spanish crown, who seemingly everyone with a rank has captured or killed at some point, and who serves as Zama’s theoretical antithesis: deranged, villainous, and unrestricted by the detailed rules one must obey in civilized society. It’s through contrasts like this that Martel builds her version of Asunción as a settlement featuring both devastating poverty and lush opulence, a hellhole for the well-to-do. The first section of Zama feels claustrophobic in this sense, where the offices of the magistrate are often crammed with as many bodies as can fit into the frame at once, reeking of noxious aristocracy. When Zama first hears news that his transfer has been withheld, even his agony-filled face is forced to share the screen with a llama barging into the room from behind him (apparently an accident that Martel kept in); a contiguous pairing of two animals from the Gods themselves. The longer Zama stays in Paraguay, the further he’s stripped of power, and sent deeper and deeper into a country that’s slowly gaining independence — and that sees Zama with even less respect than his commanders do. In this new, unnamed land, Martel’s camera often moves laterally, capturing the vastness of the territory, and almost losing Zama in the expanse. By the end of the film, there’s no sign of civilization — madness has completely consumed the lowly corregidor. Which is Martel’s ultimate comment on the “progress” that colonialism brings: its failures break even the most loyal to the cause, and have continued to do so, as the folly of man repeats itself."

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